Profile: Mark Davies, director of comms, Rethink

The director of comms at mental health charity Rethink talks to Gemma O'Reilly about his new role and life after government.

Mark Davies
Mark Davies

From his 15th floor office on London's Embankment, Mark Davies can still see his former base at Westminster. The view seems to give him comfort as he adjusts to life outside of government.

Davies, 43, is still getting used to his new life after five years working as a special adviser to former Justice Secretary Jack Straw. Following Labour's defeat in May's general election, Davies found himself jobless and looking for a fresh challenge.

Just four weeks into his new job as director of comms at mental health charity Rethink, Davies says: 'I'd be lying if I said it wasn't strange in many ways. There are some things I really like about the change. I've got to know my family again, which is great, and my weekends are no longer interrupted with phone calls from journalists.

'But there are bits of it I miss. Being in government was an absolute privilege.

One of the things I told myself was that I was really lucky to do that job and it wouldn't be forever.'

In the run-up to the election, Davies had already decided to seek a new challenge, whatever the outcome. Knowing Labour no longer occupies the corridors of power has made the change easier.

His time spent with Straw fostered an interest in prisoners with mental health problems, which made the role at Rethink an attractive proposition. 'I wanted to work for a single-issue operation with a cause,' says Davies. 'One of the frustrations of working as a special adviser is that you duck and dive through a whole range of issues all the time and never really get to grips with any of them in any great detail.'

Davies, a former journalist with a Middlesbrough twang, is initially uncomfortable being on the receiving end of the tape recorder. However, he soon relaxes once he starts talking about his new role. As director of comms, he oversees six teams comprising about 50 staff covering areas including comms, campaigns and research.

His remit also includes the charity's high-profile Time to Change campaign, run in association with Mind, which features celebrities including Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Frank Bruno.

Despite being a large charity, with 1,300 staff and more than 9,000 members, Davies admits Rethink's profile is too low. 'We want to reach out to more people and be more effective in terms of changing opinions about mental health,' he says. 'It feels like one of the last taboos in society and the sooner we break down barriers the better.'

Rethink is using the Time to Change campaign to create a 'social movement', says Davies, aimed at combating discrimination against mental health sufferers: 'It's about creating the space for people to feel comfortable talking about their problems. We are also using social media to provide a space for people to "come out" and say "I have a mental illness". We want to build a community of people who may have previously felt isolated.'

It is a significant challenge, but one that Davies is well-placed to take on. During his three years with Straw, Davies worked on several challenging issues, most recently the case of Jamie Bulger's killer Jon Venables and his controversial return to prison earlier this year. 'The demand from the media for us to release more information at that time was the most intense thing I experienced in the time working for Jack.'

However, the more glamorous side to the role of special adviser included trips to visit former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her hometown of Alabama. 'Hosting her back in Liverpool and Blackburn was extraordinary,' jokes Davies.

Davies is adamant the role of special adviser requires you to get on with your boss and is a job like no other. It is clear he still has a tremendous sense of loyalty to Straw and is nostalgic about his time in government.

Former Sun political editor and current Portland partner George Pascoe-Watson says of Davies: 'Mark's professionalism is a huge strength. He worked in one of the most difficult departments for news handling, for a highly visible and active Cabinet figure, and never once let his frustrations show. That's the perfect communicator. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, he was someone we could do business with.'

The Guardian's political editor Patrick Wintour adds: 'Mark knew Jack's mind as well as Jack, and he fought every corner for his boss.'

Davies says the Rethink role is exactly what he wanted, at the right time in his career. However, the departure from his former political life will take time to adjust to: 'It's a fantastic challenge and it helps to dampen any sense of loss about my previous life. Moving slightly away from the focus of Westminster life isn't a bad thing. Besides, I can still see it from here.'

 

MARK DAVIES' turning points

- What was your biggest career break?

Two things: getting a review of The Stranglers in the student magazine at Liverpool Polytechnic in 1986, which helped me decide what I wanted to do after college. Working on the magazine also ended up opening lots of doors. Then being in the right pub at the right time in 2003 and hearing that Baroness Amos was looking for a special adviser with a media background. I wrote to her and got the job - which led me to land the same job with Jack Straw.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

I have been really lucky to work with some amazing people in journalism and in politics, but I've learned most from Jack Straw.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Always trust your instincts. Be brave about asking what might seem like the obvious question - it's usually the one no-one has thought of - and keep things in perspective. And try not to develop a fine conceit of yourself.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

Team players with imagination and passion for the subject, combined with an understanding that the details really do matter.

Tell PRWeek about your career turning point

 

CV

2010: Director of comms, Rethink

2005: Special adviser to Jack Straw MP at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Leader's Office in the House of Commons and the Ministry of Justice

2004: Special adviser to Baroness Amos, Leader of the House of Lords

2002: Political reporter, BBC News Online

2000: Duty editor, CNN.com

1999: Broadcast journalist, BBC News Online

1998: Features editor, Liverpool Echo

1997: News editor, Liverpool Daily Post

1995: Features editor, Liverpool Daily Post

1992: Political correspondent, Liverpool Echo

1990: Graduate trainee, Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

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